Stephen L Doggett
BSc, PestContCert, MASM, is Senior Hospital
Scientist, Department of Medical Entomology,
ICPMR, Westmead Hospital, New South Wales.
[email protected]
Richard Russell
BSc, MSc, PhD, FACTM, is Professor and
Director of Medical Entomology Department
of Medical Entomology, University of Sydney,
Westmead, New South Wales.
Bed bugs
What the GP needs to know
Since the mid 1990s, there has been a global resurgence of
bed bugs (Cimex spp.), which are blood feeding insects that
readily bite humans. Patients suffering with bite reactions are
increasingly presenting to medical practitioners.
This article reviews the various clinical consequences of bed
bug bites and outlines management strategies.
Common dermatological responses include the early
development of small macular spots that may later progress
into prominent wheals accompanied by intense itching. Patients
exposed to numerous bed bugs can present with a widespread
erythematous rash or urticaria. Bullous eruptions are not
uncommon and anaphylaxis has been reported, albeit rarely.
There is no evidence that bed bugs transmit human pathogens,
but they are responsible for significant psychological distress,
can produce anaemia when abundant, and have been implicated
in the triggering of asthmatic reactions. Symptomatic control
involves treatment of the patient with antihistamines and
corticosteroids, and ensuring that the infestation responsible for
the problem is effectively eliminated.
880 Reprinted from Australian Family Physician Vol. 38, No. 11, November 2009
From an early age, the term ‘bed bug’ is indelibly lodged
into our psyche, yet as one journalist recently suggested, for
most of us, they are just a ‘mythical creature from a childhood
nursery rhyme’.1 However, these insects are very much real
and since the mid 1990s there has been an unprecedented
global bed bug pandemic. Australia has not been excluded
and infestations have risen by an incredible 4500% between
2000 and 2006.2
So why are these insects such a problem? Bed bugs bite and have
a propensity for human blood, and this usually produces some form
of skin reaction and irritation. With the growing resurgence, it is
likely that more patients with bed bug bites will present to general
Bed bugs belong to the same order of insects (Hemiptera) that
includes common garden plant pests such as aphids and cicadas.
The difference with bed bugs is that the family that they belong to
(Cimicidae) has evolved to become exclusively haematophagus, ie.
blood feeders. Bed bugs are wingless, roughly oval in shape and
flattened. The adults have a deep brown colouration, are around
5–6 mm in length when unfed (Figure 1), and not dissimilar to the size
and colour of an apple seed. There are five juvenile stages, with the
youngest being around 1 mm and having a light cream appearance,
but progressively becoming darker and larger as they develop.
There are two species that have been introduced to Australia and
both bite humans: the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, and the
tropical bed bug, Cimex hemipterus.2
In the early part of the current resurgence, bed bugs were most
likely to be encountered in commercial accommodation with high
guest turnover, such as at popular tourism destinations, with people
often transferring the insects home via luggage. However, since
then, bed bugs have spread to the wider community and infestations
have occurred in such diverse locations as trains, charter boats,
Figure 1. The various life stages of the common
bed bug, C. lectularius (the bar = 5 mm)
cinemas, hospital wards and clinic waiting rooms, staff and student
accommodation, and brothels.3 Over the past 3 years, there has
been a large rise in bed bug infestations in low income housing,
often involving thousands to tens of thousands of bed bugs in a
single infestation. Indications of an infestation include unexplained
bite reactions, dark spotting on the bed from faecal deposition, and
presence of the insects themselves (Figure 2).
Figure 2. One of the most commonly encountered sites for bed bugs
is, as the name implies, on beds. Insects typically harbour along
mattress beading. Dark faecal spotting is an indication that bed bugs
are or have been present
Figure 3. Bite marks the morning after being bitten by bed bugs; the
marks appear as faint, red macular spots
Clinical presentation
With the re-emergence of bed bugs, there have been several recent
reviews of the dermatological reactions caused by bed bugs4–7 and
a contemporary clinical experimental investigation.8 These papers
should be referred to for greater detail.
The mouthparts of bed bugs are especially adapted for piercing
skin and sucking blood. During feeding they inject saliva, which has
anticoagulant properties and contains protein fractions that can
produce various allergic reactions in humans. It is not known if the two
bed bugs species produce different clinical reactions. Blood feeding
typically occurs at night and often the bites are not noticed until the
appearance of a clinical reaction, which can occur some days later. For
some, the bite itself is painful and can result in a restless night’s sleep,9
which can affect the victim’s work performance during the day.
It has often been quoted that around 20% of people will show no
clinical reaction to the bite;10 however, such figures have been based
on limited data.8 In a recent study by Reinhardt et al,8 it was found
that 11 out of 24 people had no dermatological reaction to a bed bug
bite on first exposure. With further bites, most (18/19) developed an
obvious clinical skin reaction and the latency period for those that
previously reacted decreased substantially. This particular research
focused on acute exposure, yet investigations on chronic exposure
are virtually nonexistent. In one very small trial, a researcher exposed
himself to multiple bed bug feedings over 6 months and failed to
become sensitised.11 From the observations of the first author of this
article, many individuals in low income housing who are chronically
exposed to bed bugs are often unaware that an infestation is present.
Whether this is due to a failure of individuals to become sensitised,
or that many have become desensitised, or that some have not made
the cognitive link between the bites and bed bugs, is unknown.
Clearly more research is needed in this area.
The most commonly affected areas of the body are the
arms, shoulders and legs, ie. those that tend to be not covered
while sleeping. Reactions to bites may be delayed, with up to
9 days or more before lesions appear. 12 Often the first sign of
bed bug bites are small indistinct red macular spots (Figure 3),
which may later develop into the classic bed bug wheal. These
wheals are usually greater than 1 cm (up to 20 cm) across,4 and
are accompanied by itching and inflammation (Figure 4); they
usually subside to red spots and can last for several days. It
is often reported in the literature that lines of bites may occur
and this can be seen in Figure 4. However, most bites do not
occur in a linear pattern and when they do, it is not known if
this is caused by one or by several different bugs. Bites from
a large number of bed bugs can present as a widespread
erythematous rash or urticaria 13 (Figure 5, 6), which can be
chronic if the infestation remains uncontrolled.14 Bullous eruptions
(Figure 7) are not uncommon,15–18 and these may be accompanied
by a systemic reaction of fever and/or malaise.19 Anaphylaxis has
been reported in patients with a severe bed bug allergy, although it
appears to be rare.20 Like any skin irritation, constant scratching of
the bite site can lead to infection and ulceration.21
Reprinted from Australian Family Physician Vol. 38, No. 11, November 2009 881
theme Bed bugs – what the GP needs to know
For a haematophagus arthropod, bed bugs take a relatively large
blood meal. While it takes many hundreds of bites for even the
loss of one millilitre of blood, in India, iron deficiency in infants has
been associated with severe infestations,22 and there was a recent
report from Canada of severe anaemia in a man aged 60 years due to
multiple bed bug bites.23
Another medical condition suggested to be associated with bed
bugs is asthmatic reaction brought about by exposure to the allergens
of the insect;24,25 not dissimilar to the situation with dust mites.
However, such studies are limited and require further investigations.
Figure 5. Urticarial papular bite reactions from bed bugs 4 days after
exposure and involving hundreds of bites over the body
Differential diagnosis
Misdiagnoses of bed bug bites have been well documented and have
•scabies26 (which should always be confirmed by a skin scraping)
•antibiotic reactions
•food allergies
•mosquito bites
•spider bites
•Staphylococcus infections, and
•chicken pox.27
In one case of a severe allergic reaction that led to anaphylaxis,
the patient was initially diagnosed with a coronary occlusion.20
Misdiagnosis often results in inappropriate medical interventions,
such as the use of scabicides, 26 biopsy of the bite site, and
various blood tests,27 with obviously no useful result forthcoming.
Unfortunately, insect bites are generally poorly described and
categorised and the bite reaction can vary tremendously from
individual to individual, even with the same biting pest. Therefore
diagnoses of bed bug infestations from only the bite reactions are
unreliable. If bed bugs are suspected, then a thorough inspection of
the sleeping areas of the patient by an experienced pest manager
Figure 4. This is the same patient as Figure
3, 4 days later. The classic bed bug wheal
can be seen, along with the linear pattern
of bites that sometimes is apparent with
multiple bed bug bites
Figure 6. This 4 year old girl was bitten by
hundreds of bed bugs. There were so many
bites on the front lower abdomen that there
was the appearance of a broad erythematous
rash rather than individual bites
should always be undertaken to confirm the presence of the insect,
and to exclude other possible biting arthropods such as fleas, mites
(especially bird and rat mites), mosquitoes, ticks and midges.
Infectious diseases
As bed bugs are blood feeders, many people have been concerned
that the insects could be capable of transmitting infectious agents
like so many other haematophagus arthropods such as mosquitoes
and ticks. Indeed, bed bugs have been suspected of the transmission
of more than 40 human pathogens.7 However, the reality is that
currently there has not been a single proven case of an infectious
agent passed on to humans by bed bugs.28
Mental health impact
Photo courtesy Dr Nigel Hill, London School
of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
882 Reprinted from Australian Family Physician Vol. 38, No. 11, November 2009
One aspect of the medical affects of bed bug bites that is almost never
addressed is the significant psychological distress caused by the bites.
This is a very real health problem and should not be ignored. There is
an apparent stigma associated with bed bugs that relates the insect
with poor housekeeping and hygiene,29 even though five star hotels
do not escape infestations. Often when people learn that there is
an insect in their bed that is biting them at night, they are horrified
and disgusted. This can develop into a delusionary state, whereby
Bed bugs – what the GP needs to know THEME
Figure 7. Bullous eruptions on the hand and ankle following bed bug bites
a major economic imposition on the community. Unfortunately,
such an apathetic stance by health authorities can allow the bed
bug resurgence to continue and become an increasing problem in
more communities. As a result, more medical practitioners will be
consulted by more victims of bed bug bites.
Summary of important points
the patient feels bites and insects crawling on them, even if the bed
bugs have been eliminated for some time.30 As bed bugs often bite on
the face and neck, the resulting bite marks can affect an individual’s
self esteem and possibly interfere with employment performance
or prospects. Another aspect of how bed bugs impact on the mental
health of people relates to the trauma of the cost of eradication, which
can be from hundreds to thousands of dollars per infestation.
Despite the dramatic increase in exposure of the human population
to bed bugs, to date the literature examining treatment of patients
with bite reactions is extremely limited. Also as noted above, it is
not possible to determine from the bite reaction alone if the cause is
actually bed bugs. For this reason, the general recommendation for
treatment is similar to that for other biting arthropods, and usually
involves the use of antihistamines and topical and/or systemic
corticosteroids.7 The clinical review by Goddard and de Shazo7 should
be consulted for more information on treatment.
Bed bug control
Bed bugs are considered one of the most challenging of all insect
pests to control due to the high degree of insecticide resistance they
have developed. The cryptic behaviour of the insects means that
they are difficult to detect and treat, and thus building treatments
can be expensive of labour and chemicals. As such, control should
only be undertaken by an experienced pest manager who uses the
principles of management as set out in ‘A Code of Practice for the
Control of Bed bug Infestations in Australia’.31 This code can be freely
downloaded at
As bed bugs are not known to transmit infectious diseases, most
regional and local health authorities do not strictly consider them
to be a health issue. Clearly, however, they are a community health
problem. Bed bugs produce variable irritating skin reactions and
are responsible for considerable mental anguish, as well as being
•Bed bug infestations are becoming increasingly common.
•Bed bugs are blood feeders that produce variable skin reactions in
•Clinical symptoms may include macular spots, wheals,
erthyematous rashes, urticaria and bullous reactions, all
accompanied by intense itching.
•Bed bugs are not known to transmit human pathogens but are
responsible for considerable physical irritation and often
psychological distress.
•Control involves treating both the patient’s symptoms and
elimination of the infestation.
Conflict of interest: none declared.
Dr David Mitchell, Senior Staff Specialist, Centre for Infectious Diseases and
Microbiology, Westmead Hospital, kindly reviewed a draft of the paper.
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correspondence [email protected]
884 Reprinted from Australian Family Physician Vol. 38, No. 11, November 2009